Some vintage and enticing recordings here, mostly from the 1950s and taken from the Decca catalogue, including oodles of Tchaikovsky. Eloquence’s presentation embraces original cover artwork (always welcome), LPs’ catalogue numbers, recording dates & locations (on this occasion mostly London and Paris, with excursions to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Hamburg), as well as listing respected producers (including John Culshaw, Peter Andry, Christopher Raeburn & Vittorio Negri, the latter was also a conductor and musicologist) and esteemed engineers (such as Kenneth Wilkinson & Gordon Parry). This is just as it should be.

Let’s journey back to June 1949, Erich Kleiber conducting Tchaikovsky 4, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra following its guest-maestro’s every impulse and deliberation with discipline and a sense of occasion; not a library choice but a personal approach worthy of attention.

Another Tchaikovsky 4 (it’s a great Symphony I never tire of) comes from May 1959, Paris Conservatoire again, this time conducted by Albert Wolff in wide stereo, and with numerous personal interpretative features, not least the attention given to trumpets, and edgy with it; if the slow movement is on the square side there is compensation from the following playful pizzicato. Also on this Tchaikovsky twofer are, from Paris in 1952, Carl Schuricht leading Capriccio Italien and the Theme & Variations from Suite No.3, a Culshaw production – both performances full of individual touches and very listenable, tonics in fact, the Parisians fizzing the air in recorded sound that belies the intervening years, engineer “unknown” – and, staying in that year, an expansive account of Symphony 5 under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, which would be even longer than its forty-eight minutes but for a regrettable cut in the Finale (cf. the contemporaneous recording by Paul van Kempen). The Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra (today the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester) plays with discipline in response to Schmidt-Isserstedt’s considered approach and detailed preparation (he led this ensemble from its foundation in 1945 to 1971, two years before his death), which I like more than I may be suggesting; and, once again, the open and dynamic reproduction contradicts its year: congrats to Remastering Engineer Chris Bernauer, as throughout these releases.

Tchaikovsky is to the fore from Anatole Fistoulari with the three ballet scores represented, forty-six minutes of Swan Lake (Concertgebouw Orchestra, Decca SXL 2285), forty-nine from Sleeping Beauty (a Philips LP), and the Suite from The Nutcracker (both LSO), recorded 1961 & 1962; superb stereo and vivid/loving music-making, although Rozhdestvensky’s complete version of Swan Lake (Moscow Radio SO for Melodiya) takes some beating and anyway Fistoulari diminishes the great Act I Waltz by leaving out repeats: a solecism. Without such exalted competition coming to mind immediately, both Beauty and Nutcracker fare better, very enjoyable in fact, rich in character. But the pearl is Serenade for Strings (also LSO, 1962), the four movements beautifully crafted, the slow one especially soulful, the whole altogether special. Good to find the annotation crediting orchestral soloists, e.g. cellist Tibor de Machula of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Hugh Maguire, leader of the LSO.

Two CDs, embracing the spoils of four LPs, are devoted to Sir Adrian Boult conducting Tchaikovsky, recorded between 1952 and 1956, if only a morsel from his long career, which spanned 78s to the digital era (his fifth and final Planets was experimentally taped in DDD, allegedly, alongside the issued analogue). Eloquence has chosen the mono takes of the ‘Polish’ Symphony (No.3) rather than the binaural ones that have been in circulation – a wise move from what I recall of the latter – and the lively performance is engagingly wholesome, if at times pushed along and a bit of a scramble at times, at least for the London Philharmonic strings, if with no lack of sentiment, passion and grandeur when needed. There follow Hamlet and the 1812 Overture, the former splendidly done, drama and eloquence entwined, so too 1812, without chorus or cannon garnishes (for the armoury a bass drum is deemed sufficient, but I am open to correction as to how the shots were achieved), and if not a hi-fi spectacular it is authoritative without being sensationalised, typical of this versatile and selfless musician (who would anyway re-record 1812 during the following decade).

Disc 2 opens with the Violin Concerto, Mischa Elman as soloist, who rather comically delays his first entry and goes on to emphasise the lyrical qualities of the first movement, his eye on the moderato qualification of the tempo marking, if sometimes laboured in execution and tedious at times, even if Sir Adrian is a sovereign accompanist. Finally to Paris for Suite No.3, a work, when played complete (as here), that this conductor held in the highest esteem and would document again during the 1970s, an Indian Summer decade for him in the studio (such as some wonderful Brahms and, his fourth attempt, the definitive Vaughan Williams Job, and so much more). In the French capital, in stereo, with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris (to give this ensemble its full title, established 1828, disbanded 1967 due to financial difficulties, when Orchestre de Paris was formed and took numerous Conservatoire members into its ranks). It must be said that Boult’s account of the Theme and Variations culmination lacks the inspiration that Schuricht engendered four years earlier with what one presumes to be mostly the same personnel. Boult’s intentions, while good for the most part, are not fully formed with the players, yet the closing Polonaise is manic (!) – as if Boult was in danger of missing his plane home or was in a bad mood (he had a temper) – anyway his later LPO version for EMI is much to be preferred.

I should now go back to Kleiber senior, for he returned to Paris in October 1953 to record Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. As with the Fourth, Kleiber’s approach is restless, which suits the dramatic contrasts of the Sixth, and he has the PCO responding to his every demand. It’s a notable interpretation, although – spoiler alert – those who don’t like the march-theme of the third movement reduced in speed on its ultimate appearance (similarly with Fricsay and Martinon, say), and which may well also comprise the composer, beware! Personally, I find it thrilling. Also included on this twofer, from January 1950, is another account of the Violin Concerto, with Ruggiero Ricci, Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the New Symphony Orchestra of London, the latter consisting of freelance players and effectively Decca’s studio orchestra. This reading has its merits, even if Ricci is far too closely balanced, the NSOL reduced to the rear of Kingsway Hall.

Away from Tchaikovsky but remaining in Russia for a plethora of Prokofiev recorded between 1949 and 1957, the earliest example here is Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Frank Phillips with the LPO conducted by Nikolai Malko. Phillips (1901-80) was a BBC newsreader. When he appeared on Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Disc programme his choices included Brahms, Chopin and Puccini. He speaks with immaculate diction and (thankfully) no crass attempts at impersonation. He tells the tale simply and lucidly, while Malko and the LPO offer much vibrant orchestral narration. It really is rather good. Add to which amazingly vivid sound; and I assume Phillips and players would have been together at the sessions, i.e. no separate recording then dubbing of the voice would have been possible in 1949; if so, in terms of coordination, Phillips is very musical as well as a team-player. There follows the Fifth Symphony from Erik Tuxen and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (recorded 1952), good if not quite establishing itself on the shortlist for this work.

Disc 2 includes the curiosity that in 1955 Boult coupled Lieutenant Kijé in Paris (PCO) in stereo and The Love for Three Oranges (LPO) in London in mono; that’s what we have here anyway, although LXT 5119 suggests Kijé was also mono on its first release. Competition is stiff – Szell is supreme in Kijé, while Silvestri/Vienna and Kempe/BBCSO are the standard-bearers for Oranges – to which Boult and his respective orchestras, decent enough as they are in terms of performance, don’t get near. Finally, Jean Martinon and the PCO (1957, superb stereo sound, fab playing) work wonders with the quirky if endearing Russian Overture and the sanguine if bittersweet Symphony 7, a treasured Eclipse LP for me (ECS 619). If it’s a shame that Martinon opts for Prokofiev’s revised albeit coerced knockabout ending for the Symphony (as he also would when re-recording it for Vox/Turnabout) – the composer’s quietly chiming original conclusion is much preferable – then Martinon has a particular way with this deceptive piece that makes his view of it a must-have; the nostalgic slow movement is heartbreaking.

Last but not least, Karl Münchinger (too easily pigeonholed as a Baroque/early-Classical specialist) conducts three of Liszt’s Symphonic Poems – Hamlet, Mazeppa, Prometheus – as well as Mephisto Waltz No.1: the place Paris, the year 1954. Plenty of fire, expressiveness and otherworldliness for Prometheus; crack-of-the-whip energy, desolation and brassy splendour for Mazeppa (as outlined by Victor Hugo); and subtle if shady shenanigans suggested for Hamlet, the tense atmosphere broken into from time to time, made public, although maybe it’s all too subdued. The Mephisto Waltz takes a while to get going – although throughout its Lisztian adventures the PCO responds with virtuosity to its German guest – and this (single) disc concludes with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Münchinger conducting his Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and members of Ernest Ansermet’s Suisse Romande Orchestra, recorded in the latter’s home, Victoria Hall, Geneva, in October 1951, the venue for many a Decca triumph with “Uncle Ernie”. The Idyll is an intimate way to conclude this Eloquence endeavour.   

Standouts: Kleiber’s Pathétique, Schuricht’s Tchaikovsky; Fistoulari’s Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty & Serenade; Boult’s Hamlet; Peter and the Wolf & Martinon’s Prokofiev; and Münchinger’s Mazeppa & Prometheus.

Release details:

~ Tchaikovsky 4 & 6/Erich Kleiber plus the Violin Concerto with Ricci & Sargent – 484 0373 (2 CDs)

~ Tchaikovsky/Wolff, Schuricht, Schmidt-Isserstedt – 484 0407 (2 CDs)

~ Fistoulari conducts Tchaikovsky – 482 9366 (2 CDs)

~ Boult conducts Tchaikovsky, including Elman in the Violin Concerto – 484 0381 (2 CDs)

~ Prokofiev – 484 0357 (2 CDs)

~ Liszt – 482 8427 (1 CD)

Eloquence Goes Dutch: